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Leek risotto is a classic Italian dish of rice and onion cooked slowly to a creamy consistency. Many types of rice can be used, but traditionalists insist the best choice is the Italian grain called Arborio rice. To make the dish, any variety from the bulbous onion family of vegetables can be used, including the popular shallot, but leeks are favored for their texture and moderate taste. The proper cooking procedure is rather labor-intensive.
When preparing and cooking with leeks, there are a few important considerations. The dark green upper sheaths of leaf on a leek are tough and fibrous, and typically discarded. The bulb end is a tightly compacted cylinder, but it must be split in vertical half and rinsed thoroughly because there is a lot of sand and dirt in between its somewhat onion-like layers. It can then be chopped in small pieces, along with minced garlic, and started in a deep pot coated with butter or olive oil over medium high heat.
The rice is immediately added to the mixture and stirred to coat each grain with cooking oil. It can be cooked a short while to give the leek risotto a nutty, toasted flavor. Arborio rice is often used, but other varieties are also appropriate. What these grains all have in common is a very high starch content. Starch is released into the cooking liquid to thicken it into risotto’s characteristic creaminess.
The first liquid to be immediately added is a small quantity of white wine, though sometimes red can be used. When the wine has been thoroughly absorbed, a ladle of stock or broth liquid is added from a separately simmering pot. Vegetable and chicken stock are popular, but other flavored broths can be used. When the initial addition of stock been thoroughly absorbed, another ladle of the cooking liquid is added.
All the while, the mixture must be constantly, gently stirred. The friction, especially from a large, wooden spoon or spatula, helps loosen the starch from the cooked exterior of the rice grains. Starch also has a tendency to stick to a pan and burn, which can be prevented by stirring. Each time the previous ladle of liquid is absorbed or evaporated, another is added. This patient, gradual process is repeated until the leek risotto is finished.
When ready to serve, the rice should not be overcooked. It should be cooked to al dente, the term Italians use to describe rice and pastas that still have a bite to them. The cooking broth will have become a smooth cream, a fluid paste that sticks the grains of rice together.
The leek pieces will also have softened and flattened in shape, while also still retaining a bit of crunch. To finish traditional leek risotto, a pad of butter and a generous quantity of finely grated Parmesan or Romano cheese may be added to the pot and mixed well. It can be served on its own, or as the starch accompaniment to a main entree.
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